When the season began, the Braves knew their starting pitching staff was one of the best in the National League, but their bullpen was predicted to be a liability, in large part due to its’ youth.

But as the season wore on, the rest of Major League Baseball found out just how dynamic the Braves bullpen was, posting a 2.90 ERA over 288 2/3 innings.

Craig Kimbrel has filled the shoes Billy Wagner left after the end of the 2010 season, Jonny Venters has been one of the NL’s most dynamic relievers, and the rest of the bullpen have done their part to keep the Braves within 3 1/2 games of the Phillies at the All-Star break.

Even as the bullpen ERA took a hit on the final day of the first half, BravesFTW takes a deeper look at the bullpen through the first half of the season.

1. Jonny Venters

    Through 51 appearances, the left-handed Venters has pitched 55.1 innings, giving up 9 earned runs while posting an ERA of 1.46. Venters, who has been regarded as one of the best setup men in the NL with some of the filthiest movement on his breaking pitches, posts a 4-1 record with 3 saves and 59 strikeouts to just 21 walks. Known as “Everyday Jonny”, Venters has done wonders off the mound, showing other Braves pitchers the grip he uses on his sinker, especially Jair Jurrjens. His lone loss came in San Diego June 26 after he entered with a 1-0 lead in the 8th and left down 4-1

2. Craig Kimbrel

    After the retirement of Billy Wagner, the Braves knew they had something special in “Kid” Kimbrel, and through the first half, he has been just that. Appearing in 47 games, Kimbrel has broken the rookie record of saves with his 28. The record was previously set by Boston’s Jonathan Papelbon in 2006. Comparable to a right-handed Wagner, Kimbrel has struck out 70 batters over 46 innings, posting a 2.35 ERA while allowing 12 earned runs on 30 hits and walking 18. Kimbrel has not given up a run since his June 11 appearance against Houston, a 6-3 Atlanta win.

3. Eric O’Flaherty

    Even as he has been bothered by back problems off and on during his five-year career, O’Flaherty has been one of the best 7th inning men in all of baseball this season, highlighted by his minuscule 1.07 ERA. The Washington native has appeared in 45 games and thrown 42 innings, giving up 5 runs on 34 hits while fanning 38. The one appearance that stood out more than most was the one he made May 6. After Derek Lowe left with runners on second and third and no outs in the 7th, O’Flaherty came in to strike out Ryan Howard, Ben Francisco and Raul Ibanez, helping Lowe earn the win and the Braves post a 5-0 victory. He has not allowed a run since June 1 against San Diego, where he allowed one run on two hits in a 4-3 Braves victory. O’Flaherty has posted a 1-2 record so far.

4. George Sherrill

    After a disappointing 2010 in Los Angeles, the veteran reliever was looking to bounce back and regain the form that made him a valuable closer with the Baltimore Orioles. In 36 appearances, Sherrill has posted a 2.22 ERA, third-lowest in the bullpen, while giving up 6 earned runs on 26 hits in 24 1/3 innings. The lefty has struck out 27 while walking just 7 and posting an 0-1 record. Sherrill has not allowed a run since his appearance June 28 against Seattle, the club that brought the lefty into the big leagues. In that appearance, Sherrill gave up one run on 3 hits in 2/3 of an inning. He has proved to be one of the most reliable relievers in the middle innings when Fredi Gonzalez needs to call on a left-handed arm.

5. Scott Linebrink

    In his first season in the NL since 2007 with Milwaukee and San Diego, Linebrink has given the Braves a strong right-handed option out of the bullpen. Through 41 appearances, Linebrink has posted a 3.28 ERA, giving up 13 earned runs on 34 hits while striking out 26 in 18 2/3 innings. In the month of May, Linebrink allowed just two runs over 12 innings, both in an 8-3 loss in Houston. Linebrink holds a 3-1 record with one save, his first since July 3, 2009. It was the 8th save of his 11-year-career.

6. Cristhian Martinez

    Though he only appeared in 19 games, Martinez was called upon to provide long relief out of the Braves bullpen, taking the spot of Kris Medlen, who is currently rehabbing his surgically repaired elbow (Tommy John surgery). In 35 2/3 innings, Martinez allowed 14 runs on 25 hits, posting a 3.53 ERA. While he appeared in only three games the Braves went on to win, he posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2-to-1 (26-13).

7. Scott Proctor

    Added to the Braves big league roster May 17, Proctor came into his second season in a Braves uniform looking to improve on the six appearances he made in 2010. (He pitched 5 2/3 innings, giving up 4 runs and 4 hits while posting a 6.35 ERA). During his first month, the veteran righty gave up one run on 6 hits over 6 2/3 innings, posting a 1.35 ERA before watching that number jump to a 3.14 (He gave up 4 runs on 7 hits over 7 2/3 innings). But July has not been a good month so far for Proctor. In three of his four appearances, Proctor has given up at least one run, getting shelled in 1 2/3 innings in Philadelphia July 10. In that appearance, he gave up 4 runs on 6 hits as the Braves lost, 14-1.

8. Cory Gearrin

    When he made his first two appearances of the season, Gearrin impressed many with the movement on his pitches, not allowing a hit or a run over three innings. In his 14 appearances since, Gearrin has allowed 12 runs on 15 hits, half of those coming July 10 in Philadelphia in the aforementioned loss. While he drew comparisons to Peter Moylan with his delivery, Gearrin is still struggling to find consistency that will keep him at the big league level. On a positive note, he has struck out 21 while walking 8, but he posts an ERA of 6.61. Before Sunday, Gearrin posted an ERA of 3.38.

9. Peter Moylan

    One of the Braves most consistent relievers in 2009 & 2010, Moylan has been bothered by back problems since making an appearance April 14 against Florida. While making just 7 appearances so far in 2011, Moylan has allowed two runs and 8 hits over 4 1/3 innings, posting a 4.15 ERA and an 0-1 record.  But many expected Moylan to duplicate the season he had in 2010, where he made 85 appearances, posting a 2.97 ERA while allowing 24 runs and 53 hits over 63 2/3 innings.
Known primarily as a pitcher who could induce a ground ball in almost any situation, Moylan underwent back surgery in May and hopes to be back on the field before seasons end.

10. Jairo Asencio

    A seldom-used reliever, Asencio has pitched 10 1/3 innings in 6 appearances, mainly used as another long reliever out of the bullpen in sour situations. While not allowing a run over his first 5 innings after being called up, he allowed 4 runs in 2/3 of an inning in San Francisco April 24, and has made three appearances since, spending most his time at Triple-A Gwinnett. The Dominican right-hander made one appearance in May during a 9-0 loss to the Angels before making two more in June. (He gave up 7 runs - 4 earned - on 7 hits in two June appearances against Texas and San Diego). So far, Asencio has struck out 8 batters while walking 5 and posting an ERA of 6.97.

While the back end of the bullpen (O’Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel) have been nothing short of consistent, they have seen a lot of work over the first half of the season. Venters and Kimbrel have both been named to the National League All-Star squad, but hopes around Braves Country are that the ‘pen can continue its’ strong showing through the second half and deep into October.